I never imagined I’d one day celebrate my birthday at a voodoo festival in Benin, but what an event it turned out to be. Some friends working in Cotonou told me about the annual festival held on the 10th of January, and as I always like to do something new for my birthday, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
The festival, taking place in Ouidah, a coastal city in the south of Benin that is also the historic epicenter of voodooism, brings together members from various sects around the country, as it’s one of the official religions of the country and practiced by 60% of the people. In a rental car crossing over from Togo, where I was living, I first arrived at the Python temple early in the morning.
Outside in the parking lot, an outpouring of excited visitors in town for the same reason I was lined up to enter. As part of the festivities, the fifty-something snakes housed at the temple gathered more viewers than normal, but as the guide explained, they were symbolic spiritual icons and worshipped by many religions. The god of the snakes, Dagbe, was taken quite seriously by the local villagers, he continued, and I later on saw a statue on the road with three heads that had a long, wrangled snake between two fists.
I followed the group, straining to hear our guide, into a small opening where a large circular building with red, clay shingles on top stood in front of us. As he explained the reverence of the snakes, I noticed cameras being pulled out and held at the ready. The guide ducked inside the structure and came out with two massive pythons curled around his arms. Eager participants stepped up, one at a time, to take a photo with them, draping the cold, writhing creatures around their neck – I withstood about 10 seconds of the slithering before ducking out of its grip.
Ouidah, Benin Prison
The next stop was the nearby Ouidah Museum of History, housed in the former Portuguese fort. It is now a series of dilapidated, rundown structures but was a main departure point for the enslavement and shipping of slaves during the 16th to 19th century transatlantic slave trade that defined the western coastline of Africa for years.
Outside, rows of conjoined square blocks with narrow openings are all that is left of the smaller cells the slaves were kept in. Thin cannons and a few cannonballs are arranged facing outwards in a circle in the dry and sandy plaza as a reminder of the former colonizing power’s military might.
I followed two other families and our guide up the stairs and through rooms with cases of
grainy black-and-white photos of the slaves crammed into holding rooms while they awaited their future on plantations in the United States and the Caribbean. Remaining metal chains and clothing leftover from the previous inhabitants of the slave fort were labeled with approximate dates of their origin.
The Benin Voodoo Festival Begins
The guide urgently motioned to me that it was time – we set off for the main show. I knew he’d been trying to time our arrival with the beginning of the main songs and dances, since there was a lengthy pre-ritual ceremony of a goat being slaughtered and gin being passed around for key tribal chiefs to kick off the festivities.
The second we got in sight of the beach, I could feel the heat radiating from the sand, the merciless sun beating down on the long stretch of open air without much sign of shade. The main road along the beach was where people could park, then walk the rest of the way to the festival. It cost 1,000 cfa, under $2 USD, for a paper ticket from a man casually collecting cash and jamming it in his pockets.
I tried not to get too distracted by the numerous stalls on the right side of the street, but it was difficult not to be intrigued by the eclectic collection of dark fetishes, dreamcatcher-type dangling goods, and various products made from animal parts. Every inch of the wooden tables were covered in charms, skulls and bracelets to wrap around the forearm. Wall tapestries with the map of Benin sold for 10,000 CFA ($18.50 USD), and statues and figurines of various gods came in all shapes and sizes. Some were small enough to put in my pocket to keep me safe, while others were large enough to post at my front door or in a shrine and ward away unwanted visitors or spirits.
Door of No Return
At the center of the hubbub was a huge square in the sand, a stage where I could make out a microphone stand and various performers gathering themselves. The four sides facing the center stage were packed with explosions of color as each tribe and voodoo sect represented themselves spectacularly brightly and in full force. I glimpsed village chieftains in the middle of the clusters, oftentimes with others nearby holding up adorned umbrellas over their heads. Even later on when I was strolling around, I’d see these leaders with accompanying umbrella-holders, all while decked out in layers of heavy, traditional garb and elaborate headgear.
I was directed towards other Western tourists sitting in a far corner, where plastic beach chairs had been thrown into rows in some shade, but I couldn’t stay seated for long. After five minutes of taking in the drumming and general buzz of the area, I subtly wandered towards the raised stage where I instantly recognized the Door of No Return.
From previous visits to the Island of Gorée in Senegal and Cape Coast in the south of Ghana, I knew instantly what the massive arch represented. The concrete and bronze gate stood as a symbol of one of the many points where boats would depart filled with slaves for South and North America, never to bring them back again. Etched reliefs of figures line the columns vertically as well as across the massive white and reddish flat top, where chained slaves are more visibly seen lined up to board a ship.
With my back to the arch, I could see from a slightly higher vantage point towards the central stage. Dancers wrapped in thick fabric lined up in rough huddles to get their chance to represent their spirits and deities, with young helpers aiding them through the visually-impairing outfits. I was distracted by the sound of loud cowbells ringing out and I turned to see a peculiar sight.
A group of young men in traditional clothing were herding what appeared to be a small straw hut that was swishing across the sand towards the plaza. The teepee-shaped structure had no visible front or back, and it was impossible to see any sign of a person under the long layers of straw. These were embodiments of spirits, zangbetos, I heard a French couple next to me say, that acted as guardians of the night. It twirled in endless circles, bouncing from one side of the square to another, and then once every so often, it rolled onto one side and the helpers would reveal a seemingly empty space. Evidently, there was a hidden compartment in the top part of the triangular structure for the performer to hide so it would seem as if the structure moved like it was possessed by a spirit.
I migrated down onto the sand towards a spot bordering the stage where I saw many locals, and a few foreigners, had dared to perch on a rolled up straw mat. The security around the square tried in vain to get the spectators to back up, particularly so the walls of viewers 50 feet behind us could see clearly, but no one budged from their prime spots.
I peeked around an elbow to watch the next performers. A man, crowded by supporters on either side, lurched up a walkway, with heavy circular pom pom-like knobs strapped on his shoulders. He had a colorful skirt on, with a thick cape draped behind him embroidered with various designs. As the dancer tossed his back, the two fringed knobs looked more like arms, swinging up and over their backs over his shoulders. Around the plaza, he repeated the action, hunched over supporting the obvious weight of the outfit, hoisting the two shoulder pieces in a rhythmic motion.
I stood up to stretch my legs, as a young man wielding a sharp weapon in one hand sauntered up to take his place in the middle of the stage and started flipping and snarling as part of his performance. Nearing the edge of the water, I noticed huge crowds of people rushing to surround a priest coming away from the ocean, clothed in his own array of colorful squares and symbols – apparently, they’d just finished a ceremonial water spirit offering.
Backing up quickly to not get run over by the masses, I circled around the shaded bleachers where I knew the invited VIPs and diplomats were seated. On the far side, a large spot of bright yellow caught my eye. I strolled over, and stopped a safe distance away once I realized what it was. A number of nude female dancers, wearing only straw skirts, had yellow paint splattered all over them and were shaking and swinging their hips in quick, circular motions. Their heads rolled from side to side, and yellow paint sprayed onto the sand and any bystanders that got too close.
My Benin Takeaways
By the time the sun started going down, I had to make it back across the border. All the while, I knew my perception of voodooism was forever altered. With animalistic cries ringing in my ears and brightly colored religious symbols and tribal icons etched in my memory, I pulled away from the sands of Ouidah feeling more Intune than ever with the spirits of the world in harmony with mankind.
Written by: Annie Elle
Annie is originally from Los Angeles although she’s worked and lived abroad for the last 10 years. Currently living in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, she’s traveled to over 100 countries and enjoys playing ultimate frisbee and volleyball when she can.
Follow Annie on: Instagram: instagram.com/chennanigans01